Home > Articles > Hardware

Building Open Source Hardware: Making a Derivative

📄 Contents

  1. Derivatives and Open Source Hardware
  2. Blinky Buildings Project
  3. Summary
This chapter from Building Open Source Hardware: DIY Manufacturing for Hackers and Makers gives an example of the source files and a physical object that you can copy, modify, make, and sell as a derivative under the Open Source Hardware Definition.
This chapter is from the book

Alicia Gibb

  • “Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”
  • —Ada Lovelace, on the Analytical Engine

This chapter gives an example of the source files and a physical object that you can copy, modify, make, and sell as a derivative under the Open Source Hardware Definition. This chapter first discusses derivatives and attribution, and then walks through a simple open source hardware kit named Blinky Buildings that readers are encouraged to alter or modify. Appropriate methods for creating a derivative are discussed. (The Blinky Buildings hardware kit can be purchased at www.bit.ly/blinkybuildings or at www.Sparkfun.com.) Readers can follow along with the instructions, thereby making their own derivative kit. You may have also noticed that this kit is referenced in other chapters throughout this book. The skills used in creating a derivative board consist of modifying the source files and understanding how to appropriately label derivative files and give credit. The Blinky Buildings kit is labeled with the open source hardware logo, meaning it is okay to copy and create derivatives from it. If you attempt to copy and create derivatives of hardware that is not open source, you may receive a cease and desist letter from the originating company. To be safe, look for the open source hardware logo, and stick to creating derivatives from what you know to be open.

Derivatives and Open Source Hardware

One of the reasons people open source their hardware is to allow derivatives to be built from that hardware. People create derivative hardware for many different reasons, ranging from personalized features to economic advantage. The Open Source Hardware Definition makes the following statement about derived works:

  • 4. Derived Works. The license shall allow modifications and derived works, and shall allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original work. The license shall allow for the manufacture, sale, distribution, and use of products created from the design files, the design files themselves, and derivatives thereof.

Clearly stated in the definition is the approval to create hardware from the original design files, to make copies and distribute the design files themselves, or to create a derivative from the original design. Because open source hardware grants the right to make copies, the terms “clone” and “counterfeit” get thrown around a lot when talking about derivative works. Here are the definitions of these terms when referencing open source hardware derivatives:

  • Derivative: A derivative is open source hardware that has been altered or modified but is based on an original design by another person or company.
  • Clone or Copy:A clone or copy is an open source hardware product that has been directly copied and conforms with the Open Source Hardware Definition because it does not infringe on the trademarks of other companies.
  • Counterfeit: With a counterfeit piece of open source hardware, the trademark has been copied onto a clone or derivative piece of hardware and does not abide by the Open Source Hardware Definition because the trademark is not owned by the person or company creating the derivative. Proper attribution does not include copying trademarks. Copying trademarks is illegal.

There are many examples of open hardware derivatives. In particular, the 3D printing and Arduino communities are great places to find open hardware and their derivatives. Keep in mind that Arduino itself is a derivative of Wiring, developed by Hernando Barragan, and Processing, developed by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. Some derivatives have small changes from the original; others have large changes. Changes for derivatives generally fall within four categories: (1) The function of the device is altered; (2) the form of the device is modified; (3) the change is economic, with the creator selling the same product at a different—usually lower—price point; or (4) the change enables a better design for manufacture (DFM), making it easier to manufacture or supply parts. Economic and DFM changes often go hand in hand and can be difficult to separate. All of these changes are permitted within the Open Source Hardware Definition, including a combination of the four.

An example of a board that changed drastically in both form and function is the LilyPad, which was created by Leah Buechley. The LilyPad was mashed up with the Arduino board, altered in both form and function so that it could be sewn into textiles. This particular derivative was quite extreme in the amount of changes made to the original Arduino hardware. The reason the alterations were so drastic was that Leah invented a sewable microcontroller prior to the development of the Arduino product. (For more on the history of the LilyPad, see the anecdote in Chapter 9.) When Leah’s design was put together with the Arduino board, one could argue that the Arduino’s shape, the form factor of pinouts, the thickness of the PCB, the typical construction materials used, and the main purpose of the board were all altered. This particular Arduino derivative’s function was to be embedded in wearables—a vastly different use than the Arduino team had previously imagined for their microcontroller. The circular, thin (not to mention purple) LilyPad is to be sewn into wearables with a needle and thread rather than solder and wire.

Of course, not all derivatives are this different. In fact, some are even more or less copies of the original.

Let’s take the Arduino example one step further by considering a derivative of the derivative. Adafruit’s Flora is a derivative of the LilyPad (which is derivative of the Arduino board). The Flora derivative has the same form factor as the LilyPad—it is circular in shape and flat, and has copper petals around the exterior for ease of sewing—but has a different function, with a different chip on board than found in the original LilyPad. The Flora hardware introduced the ATmega32U4 chip into wearables with different functionalities than the ATmega328 on the LilyPad (such as allowing for a USB hookup rather than using an FTDI cable). Because these designs are all open source, the LilyPad developer was then able to roll the Flora’s changes back into their design, and now LilyPad also offers an Atmega32U4 product. Naturally, both products can compete in the marketplace, because they are open source hardware, nobody is suing over rights; rather, everyone is focused on innovating. You can access the source files for LilyPad and Flora and compare and contrast the design files for yourself:

This is how derivatives of open source work! People build off improvements and ideas from others rather than reinventing the wheel each time. This process moves innovation forward at a more efficient and more productive pace.

Why the LilyPad Arduino Has “Arduino” in Its Name

The fact that the LilyPad carries the Arduino brand name is a very important point to note. The name Arduino is a trademark held by the Arduino company. Leah Buechley made an agreement with the Arduino company to license its Arduino trademark for a fee. This arrangement should not be confused with Leah giving the Arduino team attribution for their original board. Arduino has tried to make an important distinction in its trademark over the years. Although it is an open source project, the logo and company name are trademarked, much as any other company in the open source hardware space (and even in open source software, for that matter) can obtain a trademark for its products. We use trademarks because trademarks protect consumers and say something about the quality of the brand they are buying, rather than to protect the intellectual property of the hardware. Unless you obtain a license from Arduino, as Leah did to enable her project to be called a LilyPad Arduino, you cannot use the word “Arduino” in the name of your derivative as a way to give credit or attribution because it is a trademarked name.1 You can help the community understand correct attribution of Arduino derivatives by attributing Arduino in your README file or your project description.

Giving Correct Attribution

The Open Source Hardware Definition states the following about attribution:

  • The license may require derived documents, and copyright notices associated with devices, to provide attribution to the licensors when distributing design files, manufactured products, and/or derivatives thereof. The license may require that this information be accessible to the end–user using the device normally, but shall not specify a specific format of display. The license may require derived works to carry a different name or version number from the original design.

When creating your derivative, you will want to give credit to the original design without infringing on the trademark of one of original creation. As Michael Weinberg reminds us in Chapter 3, “Including a ‘share alike’ provision in a CC license is not a polite request that anyone who builds upon the work contribute back to the commons; rather, it creates a legal requirement.” This goes for attribution provisions as well. Due to the murky nature of licensing hardware, we tend to read the source files (which can be licensed cleanly with copyright or a copyright alternative) to understand the intention to list attribution or share it alike with the same license.

Attribution is like citing someone else’s work in a research paper; it is not copying and pasting the logo of the original creator and applying it to your board. Attribution can also be thought of as giving the work provenance. In the art world, giving correct provenance means identifying who had a particular piece of art before you owned it. In open source hardware, the equivalent is who hacked on that particular design file or piece of hardware before you. List their names just as you would in a citation or provenance document.

Ego or Accuracy?

Call it ego or call it accuracy, but the open source community loves credit. Credit, or attribution, is one of the many benefits to sharing your project openly. Getting attribution for something you created is at the root of most open source licensing structures, be it in hardware or software.

Accurate attribution is important to the life of your project. Giving accurate attribution lets the community know what your project was built on. Contributors, be they original creators or makers of derivatives, may be known within the community for their quality, work style, community involvement, approach, knowledge on a particular subject, and so on. Listing creators for your derivative gives users more information and certain expectations about your derivative.

How far do you go back? Most projects don’t include credit to the inventors of the transistor when using one on their board, or to the inventors of the C programming language when using Arduino. That practice is accepted within the community. We generally do not step further back than the first or second layer of original creators, although there will always be gray areas where credit is due. When in doubt, give credit. Even if your project no longer reflects any of the original design, you still may want to reference that previous versions were based on so–and–so’s contraption so that people do not feel left behind or forgotten. No one will fault you for giving too much credit to other people who wrote code or built hardware before you. Perhaps the open source hardware industry will eventually grow in such a way that our README files will start to look like movie credits and go on for at least seven minutes after the movie is over.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020